I'll never forget the first time I had to fire someone. Leading up to the day, I could barely sleep. My heart was beating out of my chest, my palms were sweaty, my voice felt shaky. It was one of the hardest things I had ever had to do.
Since then, I've had to do it many times over. And I still feel anxious when I know I have to gear up for a tough conversation. With hundreds of these kinds of conversations under my belt, I assure you that it does get easier -- if you have a strategy in place.
There are very few leaders who don't struggle with having to deliver bad news. Sometimes you're firing someone, others you're giving critical feedback. It's a tough part of the gig, but a crucial one if you want to be successful.
A dangerous leader is one that avoids confrontation altogether. They either make someone else do this part of the job, become passive aggressive to the employee in lieu of directness, or cross their fingers and hope that the employee either improves or quits. Needless to say, these are all terrible attributes.
If you love being in a leadership role but hate this part of the job, here are a few strategies that have helped me become more comfortable with confrontation.
1. Map it out.
Stick to the facts. Write down the who, what, where, when and how this conversation came to be. You want to be as clear as possible to the employee so they understand why they're in the hot seat.
Scripting out the conversation can help keep you on track if the conversation starts to veer off a dangerous path. It's a normal reaction for the employee to become defensive and start pointing fingers. No matter what's said, rely on your bullet points and keep your cool.
2. Practice makes perfect.
The more you practice what you're going to say, the better prepared you'll feel once the conversation starts. I'll practice while I'm getting ready for work, if I'm stuck in traffic, or whenever I have some solo time to myself.
You could even take it one step further and record yourself delivering the bad news or practice with a close friend or spouse. This allows you to gain more insight on how you're coming across, and see which areas you can improve in your delivery.
3. The business is greater than you.
Step outside of yourself and put things into perspective. The conversation you're about to have really has nothing to do with you. You're just the messenger.
The company's shareholders, customers, and staff only care that the business is performing well and the company's culture is intact. You're not there to be liked; you're there to do your job. Delivering bad news is part of it.
4. Feel the feels.
You've likely heard of the term to "get comfortable in the uncomfortable". Well, this is one of those moments. Your hands may shake, your feet may fidget, and your forehead my sweat. And there's nothing you can do about it. You just have to push through until you come out the other side.
5. Think of the end goal.
Some tough conversations can last two minutes. Others can last two hours. Both feel excruciating, but like all situations, they're temporary. There will be an end in sight, so think big picture.
When I'm gearing up for a big talk, I always focus on the end goal. This could be that the employee will no longer work in the company, new talent will emit better performance, the culture will improve, and staff will be happier without the toxic person on the team. Despite that it feels terrible at the time, you're doing it for the greater good of the company.